Language Exchange Relationships are Complicated

Tuesday evening I had the pleasure of hosting TWiST Paris, our meetup that enables French start-up companies to pitch a local audience in English and then get the opportunity to present their business to US entrepreneur and investor Jason Calacanis live via Skype.

During  a short break, actually right before our live call with the States I had the chance for a quick chat with an attendee. He asked me why language exchange platforms apparently don’t seem to take off.  As I feel that my answer fell short and has probably left him with many open questions, this blog might be a good place to give him and some other readers asking yourselves the same set of questions an answer.

Honestly, I was distracted due to TWiST and how to “trick” Jason Calacanis to allow all six companies to present. So, apologies for that.

On my way back to Brittany the next day, I had some time to think about the question and if I’m not completely mistaken, the person who asked me was Will Hatfield who founded

Let me begin by saying that at first glance, language exchange seems to be a rather promising thing and a good idea in general. Sure, it is not likely work in the countryside but in urban areas like Paris, London, Berlin, New York and other cities, there should be enough people offering different combinations of languages and eager to learn a new language in order to build a decent customer base, right?

Both simply set date and time, meet and start learning. Sounds like a win – win situation. A while back I wrote a post about Andrew Playford’s Lingomatch  that had been based on exactly this idea but from what I heard Lingomatch apparently pivoted and although at present day I cannot tell you precisely into what but I’m sure we’re going to find out soon.

This post will try to illustrate why language exchange might actually never take off and some of the issues around language exchange.

Where’s the money at?

My first point is about language exchange as a business. Where’s the money at and who is willing to pay?

Now, if I look at my own students I can see that only one of them does exchange her mother tongue and has language exchange partners. She gives French and practices with different people either German or English. But she does that solely online via Skype. Why? Because she finds it easier to find the right person to practice with in language learning communities and also has the opportunity of getting to know the other person online without the need of meeting them in real life, at least not right from the beginning. This is for security reasons and without the hassle of setting up a meeting in busy Paris. You also have to take into account that you’re most likely to meet in a public place at least at the beginning of your language exchange. So you have to buy a drink minimum. As for language exchange money seems to be a crucial point besides the element of social learning, those 5 euros for a Coke or a cappuccino in Paris may be a little off-putting if then the language exchange wasn’t that great either.

From a business owner’s perspective I have to ask myself the question of the lifetime value of a customer. If I did language exchange and let’s say I’m even willing to pay in order to find my match similar to a dating site on the Internet I would want to find the ideal person to do language exchange with. Now, if I found him or her it’s over for the service and I’m happy, so I paid once. If, on the other hand, the experience was frustrating is it likely that I’ll give the service a second change to find my match? Not very likely, at least not for me.

It’s the same economics as in dating services. The initial price needed to be rather high to make it a sustainable business but then we have to see that learning languages doesn’t have the same value for the vast majority of people compared with finding your significant other. When we take into consideration that dating services take up to $2000 or more for a handful of suggested partners, we have to ask ourselves what people would be willing to spend on the perfect language exchange partner.

Bottom line, there might be the potential of generating some revenue but more like a “buddy business” or “one guy and a website”. It is definitely a lifestyle business and not “the next big thing”.

What’s the outcome?

Secondly, what can I expect from language exchange?

Most likely, neither of the two is a professional tutor as in this case the learner could have taken lessons with a teacher or tutor right from the start. Depending on the characters after saying hello, the conversation will start at the point: OK, what can we do or talk about? Don’t expect both parts to be prepared and guiding the language exchange partner through a set of questions. This might get better over time, when people get to know each other but that also involved that both needed to understand each other in the first place to make the first meeting fun and meet on a regular basis from then on. Classic chicken and egg.

From my own experience, I consider missing topics a major issue both in online communities as well as offline. If I sometimes meet with an online student in real life, I already know enough about them to initiate the conversation and make them feel at ease right from the start. The same is true for them, so that after a short period I can usually stop with some guiding questions and the conversations happen in a natural way. But in the end, I have been doing this for years now and I actually doubt that we leave this professional level completely. Yes, both feel good but still we have had the teacher/student relationship for all those months or years and somehow a small rest of it sticks. Just to illustrate a little bit how sensitive relationships between two people are.

About being prepared, I can only say that Lenguajero‘s and English Out There‘s concept of providing community members with topics to discuss has been one of the better attempts of the industry.

Then, what about the time? If you agree to meet for one hour, with some possible exceptions taken into consideration, I doubt that in the vast majority of cases time will be equally shared on a 50:50 basis. Verbling may have a possible answer to that when their system automatically changes the target language after 50% of the lesson but then, we’re not talking about real life language exchange here. And do you want to have a conversation using a clock like chess players?

You cannot learn a language doing language exchange.

Learning a language requires a framework and structure, maybe not in all cases but in most cases you will achieve this with a professional person who does that on a daily basis and for a living.

I can only imagine language exchange work if you have learned the target language already and want to activate your speaking skills, just like my French student does. Also, your partner must be at approximately the same level you are, otherwise it might get frustrating and one will naturally have a bigger advantage than the other.

In any case, meeting someone to talk to in the language I’m learn is about activating knowledge and learning some new expressions along the way. I had the perfect example the next day in Paris where I met one of my long term students from South Korea who is currently studying in Europe. For nearly two years he had taken one lesson a day with me. First we started with French, then we learned German together.

When I met him in Paris I was amazed how good his German still is as we have not learned together for over a year now. In the two hours we only talked in German and here and there I corrected an expression or helped him with a word. Which brings me to my last point.

Can language exchange work at all?

Trying to come to a conclusion for language exchange, I feel that the potential compared to language exchange taking place online is the real life social experience of meeting an interesting new person and have a chat in their language. Would I pay for it? Maybe.

If I was new in a city it might be a way to get in touch with people. However, there are many other (better?) ways and maybe more pleasant ones than just meeting to exchange languages. For instance, I could also pay for dinner meet-ups or follow another hobby or passion and try out my French. The language exchange then happens automatically as people will correct me and maybe ask what the word in my language is etc.

The main issue I see is that language learning has a clear hierarchy, one is the teacher and one is the learner. There are mental barriers to switch that in the middle of the conversation or in the next meeting. Therefore, you cannot learn and teach in the same couple, you needed to switch partners for either the teacher or learner role.

All in all, I believe that if at all language exchange is a feature of a bigger product or service. A good example for this are the Rosetta Stone meetups across the US. People who would like to practice a certain language meet in their hometown and speak Italian. But again, those meetups are professionally organized which means that there are community leaders and a clear agenda. Well, as I said, it’s complicated.

Picture: It’s Complicated – Universal Pictures

  • ChinaMike

    In general I would identify the reasons as follows. Before I start I would like to acknowledge that many (perhaps 30%) of exchanges break some or all of these “rules”.
    1. Neither side is as interested in the other as they are interested in themselves. Most people are subconsciously looking to get more out of the relationship than they are to put something into the relationship.
    2. Typically while one or both may be good learners, they are not nearly as good at teaching.
    3. Both sides try to teach the way they want to learn.
    4. There is rarely any system to follow, it is just made up as they go along.
    5. The benefits to both parties are unequal. At some point one of the two realizes this. Repercussions follow.
    6. Neither party goes into the relationship thinking long-term.
    7. The social relationship (either good or bad) takes on more importance than the activity.

    • Brad Patterson

      I would agree with Mike that these are some of the issues with language exchanges, just as Kirsten wrote that learning a language requires structure/framework.  

      Most exchanges do lack structure, as the do lack balance and eventually lack motivation on one part.  That being said, I learned chinese entirely through language exchange and then an immersion environment (no books, no classes).  

      In the end, it just depends, and it’s best to fish around for a good partner, and probably find a more structured environment from which to bring ideas to the language exchange.

      Cheers, Brad

      • ChinaMike

        “That being said, I learned chinese entirely through language exchange and then an immersion environment (no books, no classes)”

        You lucky dog!

        • Brad Patterson

          :)  Cheers, Mike.

          Three years and a ton of personal motivation, plus a few very motivated chinese students who REALLY wanted to do a language exchange.  All depends on the context, doesn’t it.    

  • jasonoutthere

    Interesting post Kirsten and thanks for the mention!  I think our materials do a bit more than provide discussion topics…6 levels…20 three-hour lessons per level,  CEFR aligned, 250,000 hours of teaching in development with real students, blah blah :-)

    I think you are right about the issues surrounding language exchange, as is ChinaMike.

    The key, as you and the others have pointed out is (and in my experience also) structure and being totally open about your needs with the other person.  EOT materials can turn language exchange into a full on structured course at your speaking level but it is also best to approach the relationship from the perspective of asking partners to help you and give you some of their time. Just that, altruism, focused upon your practice. There are a lot of people who will ‘donate’ time online, it is called ‘micro-volunteering’ and is a growing phenomenon.

    As we all probably do, I get learners calling me without introduction on Skype to try and practise. Many ( most if not all) of those trying to practise this way fail to prepare properly before they speak. Once or twice I have let people come through to see how they fare and they always run out of things to say fairly quickly.

    So the key things to do are:

    1. Prepare properly, follow a course at your level that will get you into conversations at just above your level (Krashen’s i+1) and using language you need to learn how to use. This puts you in control of the conversation from the start and makes it a lot less stressful or scary…our courses will do that for you, that is what they were designed to do.

    2. Look for speaking partners who are happy to give you some of their time, just a few minutes a week and let them know you will talk to them about specific topics FOR A FEW MINUTES and then say ‘goodbye’. Many people have been put off language exchange because they don’t know when the speaking time will end and often they are asked to cover the same ground (topic-wise) again and again. It gets very boring, and not knowing when the boring conversation will end or how you are going to escape means you will be reluctant to do it again.

    3. Record you conversations and listen to them again on your iPod or MP3 player..the brain likes this, your voice speaking another language, using language that you have recently studied is much much more interesting to your brain than someone else’s and you hear your mistakes clearly. This is like providing turbo-charged comprehensible input (Krashen).

    4. Speak to four or five different partners in short bursts using the same lesson/language…over a period of a few days too….staged repetition…. and every conversation will also be unique and memorable for different reasons.

    I could go one but will leave it there….

    Here is a video I have on YouTube that has an explanation of the difficulties of language exchange:

    I think language exchange, with some structure and some good materials and an honest approach to the building of relationships is fantastic. To make an EOT speaking session into a language exchange all you need to do is ‘flip’ the conversation into the other language and start it again.

    In summary…multiple short, pre-prepared, focused, structured and quick conversations (ALWAYS be the first to say ‘goodbye’ so you build TRUST) are the way to make it hugely effective. As you grow in confidence and skill you can expand conversations and go ‘off-piste’, which will enhance the learning experience even more. But you need to take small regular steps before then.

  • Sylvia Guinan

    I’m very interested in this as I’m always trying to think of fool-proof ways to get language exchange partners for students who want to follow Jason West’s English Out There courses. His courses are the best way forward and I believe we should fine-tune a system for facilitating this ‘matchmaking’…..I’ve sent students to language exchange sites but they couldn’t find ideal partners.What do you think is the best way for students to find partners on skype?

    • KirstenWinkler

      Wrong question. You need to ask “What is the best way for students to find partners?” as Skype is only one way the exchange may be done. 

      So in a next step we have to ask “Where are potential exchange partners?”. I would recommend Livemocha, busuu, italki etc – any community that is about language learning as this will be the common ground. Why search the desert when you can find everyone at the water hole? :)

      Hence, the best way to find a partner is probably to open an account on one (or all) of those communities and start to engage. Does this help?

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  • Alex Canada

    There are a lot of free language exchange websites available. I tried, and met some Spanish speakers while I was in Barcelona, and had a great time (although I did end up getting drunk a few times as well…) 

  • Sidra

    Hi, I found the article very thorough and thought-provoking. I agree that language exchange for beginning learners does not work! In fact, I recently visited Peru and I met two expat ladies who have been living in Lima for years and only know very rudimentary Spanish. My Spanish was much better even though I just took it in high school. I was also able to learn more rapidly due to the solid (yet very small) base I had. I think it is better for a person to enroll in a local community college or evening school to take an evening class, and once a person has a good grasp of the language, language exchange can be used to iron out the details.

    • KirstenWinkler

      Thanks Sidra. The key for beginners really lies in structure and goals, either with a private coach, a self-directed course or, as you suggest, classes. The exchange part is great for practice.